Last week, I wondered aloud (on twitter) whether or not anyone out there cares if a winery uses cultured yeasts instead of wild yeasts.
The feedback from the twitterati is included below after the jump (if you chimed in already via twitter, your response may be listed for all of the 1WD faithful to see – don’t say I didn’t warn ya!).
The short (and grossly oversimplified) answers to the question, by the way, seem to be "Yes!" for wine geeks and "No, who cares as long as the juice tastes good!" for the majority of people, based on the twitter responses that I received.
The topic of wine yeasts, and why they seem to touch off a hot-button reaction among wine pros and the geekier of wine aficionados, requires a bit of a primer, because to most wine drinkers, this is gonna be some pretty esoteric shiz.
During my last trip to Napa, I stopped into Chimney Rock for some barrel samples tasting (that’s samples of wines from barrels, not tasting samples of barrels) and spent a few hours geeking out over all things wine-related with the affable Elizabeth Vianna (CM’s winemaker who last week was promoted to GM). Elizabeth is open, honest, and easy to get along with, and she’s not shy when it comes to expressing her opinions. And yet, when she was explaining the winemaking process behind each of Chimney Rock’s wines, she became almost apologetic when she mentioned that they – gasp! – inoculate their wines with cultured yeasts!
Imagine, the audacity! The HORROR!!!…
I think Elizabeth got skittish around the yeast topic because it’s almost as divisive among wine pros and wine geeks as Biodynamics (ok, it’s not quite that bad, but it’s close). For some reason, the topic of which style of yeasts are used by winemakers has taken on way, way, way too much importance in wine geek circles, and occasionally in reviews and profile pieces where it feels, through implication, as though any wine not using native yeasts, (or if filtered, and/or fined), must somehow be inferior to those that take things as far as can reasonably be done au naturel (when it comes to the wine itself, I mean, not the winemakers… though I certainly wouldn’t put nude winemaking past a good percentage of the winemakers that I know… ok, whatever…).
Now, generally speaking, winemakers have two options when it comes to yeasts. They can use wild yeasts (which exist naturally in the winery and wherever the grapes where grown); or, they can inoculate with cultured yeasts to start fermentation. Either way, without yeasts converting sugar into alcohol, you’re not gonna get any wine – so we’re not talking about the importance of yeasts, just about whether or not it matters to people if the yeasts used are cultured or not.
Cultured yeasts are more predictable – they are cultured specifically for behavior at certain temperatures, and/or for flavors that they help to impart into the finished wine. Wild yeasts typically are less predictable, a bit more difficult to work with as a result, but can (in the best cases) impart what some consider to be rougher-hewn but more characterful flavors than the "cleaner" ones that result from their cultured counterparts.
I’m certainly not saying that any process performed behind closed doors in a winery should be ignored by consumers; the end doesn’t justify all of the means, but honestly… how far should we rationally take this stuff?
Case in point: do Chimney Rock’s wines suffer somehow from not using wild yeasts? It’s an impossible question to answer without somehow having side-by-side wines made from grapes in exactly the same location and in exactly the same way except for the yeasts involved. But I can tell you this: Chimney Rock makes some really, really good wine – and personally, I don’t give a sh*t what type of yeasts they use. And neither should you, if the thing you care the most about is what’s in the bottle at the end of the process.
Great wines are made in the world’s most storied wine regions with both categories of yeast, and if there’s a morally-superior yeast option then it certainly has never revealed itself to me in the bottle. I can tell you I have personal preferences when it comes to what I like, particularly with Chardonnay (when it’s not coming from Chablis), where I like the characterful complexity that wild yeasts can impart. But my personal predilections do not equate to one wine being inherently superior to another.
My friend Steve McIntosh from Winethropology.com summed up it best, I think, when we exchanged some thoughts over e-mail on the topic of why yeasts don’t really matter:
“I’ve always associated cultured yeasts with beer-making more than quality winemaking. Of all the wineries I’ve toured and winemakers I’ve rapped with, the topic of yeast has only come up anecdotally. Even then, they’ve only mentioned it when they use wild yeast. I guess I had (mistakenly) assumed that most higher-end wineries rely exclusively on hands-off, wild-only yeast.
Then, just yesterday, I was chatting with a winemaker on Facebook. This is a guy whose wines I’ve been loving and recommending for a while. Right there on his Facebook page is a picture of his boxes of Lalvin Rhone 4600 and T73.
WTF?!? Commercial yeast?! In some of my favorite wines?!? It can’t be.
Of course it can. It is.And not just his wines, either.
My outrage quickly dissipated, recalling just how damn good his last Grenache was. Sure, the romantic in me wants to believe that nothing is ever added to the wines I serve my friends and family. But the truth is that my attention quickly refocuses on what I love the most about wine: the experience, not necessarily the ingredients.”
Amen to that!
Where do you stand on yeasts? Should we get our vinous panties in a wad, or is this much ado about nothing when it comes to enjoying wine?
Here’s what some of you said on the topic last week:
billward4: Not in the lees, er, least.
vinniebasile: Wild yeasts add to the ‘terroir’ aspect of wine which I enjoy…but then, sometimes that’s not necessarily gonna be a good thing.
55 thoughts on “Do You Care About Wine Yeasts? (Crowd-Sourcing Wine Learning)”
I defy anyone to discern between a wine made with cultured and wild yeasts. It's a load, just like that crazy biodynamic stuff.
Wayne – I'm pretty sure anyone not making wine (and most who are) would be totally unable to tell the difference.
I had a moment recently in S. America where I tasted a Chardonnay and asked if the yeasts were wild and the producer said "yes, how did you know?" and I offered some vague description of the "characterfulness" of the secondary aromas. I thought maybe I was close. But then I got my guess wrong on EVERY SINGLE Chard. I asked about after that.
So I'm convinced that the difference is nowhere near as important or detectable as some make it out to be.
As a winemaker who uses resident yeast populations periodically, I will say that it's scary for the first couple days until they start to rip. That said, I'm not sure if we're actually talking about non-Sacchromyces yeast (like kloeckera, Brettanomyces, or toraspulora) or just non-cultured Sacchromyces cerevisiae or bayanus strains?
If a winery has ever–and I mean, ever–used a commercial yeast strain (especially K1 or DV10 which are used whenever a wild or even non-wild fermentation starts to get stuck) then those yeasts are definitely part of the mix in every "wild" fermentation. So, is there really a true "wild fermentation"?
All I know is that every fermentation, even with cultured yeast, is a truly wild ride. And I am willing to bet that no one out there can discern a clean wild ferment versus a clean cultured ferment based purely on aroma and flavors without any sort of other knowledge of the wine. The choice to go wild is purely stylistic, just as the choice to go cultured would be.
Carl – GREAT point about what constitutes "wild" vs. cultured. It makes the debate eve trickier than the one on Biodynamics (at least that one has a certification and therefore could be argued has a definition with fairly defined boundaries).
I hope everyone reading understands Carl's point, because his is the salient one.
In fact, Carl answers something that I picked up in the quote from Steve M. that you included above and that I was going to direct a comment: "Sure, the romantic in me wants to believe that nothing is ever added to the wines…"
Wild yeast is an addition, since it is likely airborne and not exactly part of the juice make up.
Thomas – I find that many people have romantic notions about winemaking, to the point where I've found myself defending wines that are made by people buying grapes and not growing the grapes themselves. Those romantic notions just take things way, way too far. Almost no modern industry can live up to those ideals.Cheers!
If you remember, I wrote a complete Idiot's Guide to dispel those "romantic notions."
Thomas – link, please, let's share the guide here!
Anyone can link to all my books via my Web site: http://www.thomaspellechia.com. They are all on Kindle, too.
The direct Amazon link to the Idiot's Guide is: http://www.amazon.com/Complete-Idiots-Starting-Ru…
In a seminar at Davis, a PhD (forget which one) stated unequivocally, as a fact – not an opinion – that consumers can't taste the difference between wild or cultured yeast fermentation. Pure marketing?
Hi Nancy – I'm not aware of any studies testing that definitively, but if I was a betting man my money sure as hell would be on the "they can't tell" option!
However, I'm totally willing to accept that different flavors are imparted by those yeasts – just not that anyone can really tell the differences just by tasting in a casual way. What I mean is, wild yeasts on a Chardonnay would impart some different flavors than cultured yeasts, and vice-versa, but I'm guessing there's no way you can tell unless you're looking for those flavors specifically in the finished wine.
Having a PhD evidently does not necessarily make you right. Though it's admittedly harder to tell differences between red wines fermented with different yeast strains, white wines are much easier to distinguish. That's why I use certain strains (high aromatics production) to make my dessert wines that I would never use to make my white table wines, and vice versa. And remember – at some point in history all cultured yeast was isolated from nature, where it existed in the wild. Thus, there really is no difference between wild yeast strains and cultured yeast strains except that the cultured strains have been separated from their cousins. Gotta luv Mother Nature…
There are wild yeasts that have a distinctive flavor, and aroma. It's called Brett.
If any winery that has alcohols over 13% says they only use wild yeast, I would bet
a donut, that it is actually a cultured strain that came in on the wind. How I would test
that I don't know.
also, anyone that thinks that wild yeast leave a particular aroma or flavor, has not seen
the dozens and dozens of yeast strains available. Except that many wild yeast strains
do leave behind bad aromas that the cultured strains dont (typically).
Sam – HA! Brett jokes are *always* welcome here. :)
Sam, you would test that by isolating some yeast DNA from the wine during fermentation (or possibly from the lees during racking) and performing a version of "DNA fingerprinting" on the yeast a la "who's your daddy?" Since we know the "fingerprint" of the different commercial strains, the isolate from any given fermentation can be compared with the known suspects and identified as one of them or an out-of-towner. The process isn't particularly esoteric, time-consuming, or expensive. Though it's not listed amongst the services on their website, I imagine ETS could do this for you (as could any decently equipped university extension office.)
I don't think the point here is "whether you can taste the difference" or not. The point (for me) is that using industrial yeast is yet another adulteration and additive in the wine. Sure, it tastes good – any product with additives, flavor enhancers, colorants, stabilizers, preservatives, etc, etc tastes good! if all you're worried about if the wine tastes good, then you're better off not asking any questions! You may not like the answers. If you're interested (and/or worried) about what's in your wine (or any other food) then it's imprtant to know whether the yeast is wild or industrial and/or genetically modified.
Hi Fabio – Generally speaking, I agree with you in terms of additives, etc.
But is this really the case with yeasts? Are we talking about GMO, made-in-the-factory-only type of product here, or just the fact that particular strains have been separated and cultivated industrially? Because if it's the latter, then I think calling them adulterations is going way too far.
Point taken! There are yeasts and yeasts! No doubt some particular strains have merely been saparated and cultivated industrially as you say. Others, though, may have been genetically modified, which I believe is dangerous, as I don't think enough research has been done to ensure safety for human consumption. Yet other strains of yeast have been modified to impart certain flavors that are not normally imparted by those strains, and I believe that's just the same as adding an artificial flavour.
OK, 'adulteration' is too strong a word in the case of yeast only 'separated and cultivated industrially'. I would certainly call it 'adulteration' in the case of GM yeasts, though. Wouldn't you?
Fabio – I think if you're talking GM yeasts, yes you definitely have a point in labeling that as potentially adulterated.
I may be wrong (I often am), but I think that there are only one or two gm yeast strains available to winemakers. All others have been isolated from fermentations or from the wild. So nearly all are selections from the wild, or traditionally bred, just like every living cow or chicken(unless you are one of the few that eat wild jungle fowl). It is not hard to find yeast strain pedigrees, as most suppliers are proud to say where they come from.
One affirmed for use in the US, called ML01, and lauded for its ability to simultaneously perform both alcoholic and malolactic fermentation and therefore reduce the likelihood of a disadvantageous malolactic bacteria elaborating the biogenic amines that cause headaches and flushing sensations in some wine drinkers.
szymanskiea – Your comment is awesome because 1) I didn't know there was a yeast that did simo. ML and alcoholic fermentation and 2) it's further proof for people to realize that their wine headaches are NOT from sulfides! Do you hear this people? Your headaches are from amines (or drinking too much and getting a hangover), NOT SULFIDES!!! :)
Sam – thanks. Now you've got me wondering what to pair wit wild jungle fowl…
The term "industrial yeast" is merely inflammatory rhetoric, and you obviously aren't willing to understand the information that Joe–and many other comments–have pointed out.
"industrial yeast" inflammatory rhetoric? OK, let's call it "cultured yeast" then. There's no point arguing about semantics and nuances when there are other more interesting things to discuss, is there?
I understand perfectly the information that Joe and other have pointed out, and I don't see why you suggest I'm "unwilling to understand" it! Were you referring to anything in particular?
Fabio I was referring to the fact that there is no such thing as pure, wild yeast that is specific to each grape variety, each vineyard or each winery. In that regard, every yeast is an additive to wine.
The issue isn't about additives; it is about what a specific additive may or may not be doing. On that score, the only potential problem that I see is with genetically modified products, because they may pose a potential threat to the normal course of events, such as isolating one gene activity and also depressing regularly occurring gene activity. As for the health of our bodies, I haven't seen evidence that any sort of yeast makes an impact over any other, but if you can point em to scientific evidence, I'd love to take a look at it.
To me, there is a point in arguing over the use of inflammatory phrases, which are engineered (how's that for a pun in this conversation?) to evoke emotion rather than to stir serious dialogue–it's a way to elevate tactic over information.
If we're all using the same grape clones and the same yeast strains, well, we're gonna be narrowing the bell curve dontcha think? For people to say in one breath that there is no difference between wild (resident, indigenous, native, etc.) and cultured and then turn around and proclaim that the fermentation is different and more controlled with cultured yeasts seems a bit contradictory. Perhaps there is a complexity that is gained from just putting it in the tank, controlling temperatures and letting 'er rip when the time comes? Certainly more fun.
Anon – I think the prevailing notion is that the yeasts do impart different characteristics and do indeed act differently during fermentation. However, I'm challenging anyone who picks one or the other yeast profiles as making inherently superior wines.
I think that it's important to draw a distinction between consumers being able to discern a difference in flavor between native and commercial yeasts and there beng a flavor difference between the two. Anyone who has tried fermenting the same juice with different commercial yeast strains and allowing fermentation to occur spontaneously will attest that the resulting wines taste different, even if they are all perfectly sound. Winemakers make a plethora of decisions that all influence the way a wine tastes, and chances are that most consumers aren't going to be able to pick out most of them. That's the point. To winemakers, the choices they make matter a lot. They probably don't matter to consumers. If consumers wish to form preferences for one yeast over another out of concern for aesthetics or morals or fashion or what their daddy liked when they were young, fine. Most consumers probably won't care. Fine. Asking "Do you care about wine yeasts?" is much like asking, "Do you like Carmenere?" or "How often do you buy Italian wine?" A matter of curiosity, and that's about it.
szymanskiea – For me, it's calling BS on the wine snob who says one yeast approach is better than another: it's not, as you point out, and most people probably don't care (and shouldn't get marketing-hoodwinked into caring, either). Cheers!
Also, I can add to this comment: "Anyone who has tried fermenting the same juice with different commercial yeast strains and allowing fermentation to occur spontaneously will attest that the resulting wines taste different, even if they are all perfectly sound…"
If you ferment the same juice with myriad yeast, cultured and so-called wild, you likely will wind up with myriad results. That is the nature of fermentation, not of the yeast.
Also, if a wine fermented "au natural" reaches beyond 12% alcohol, it's extremely likely that the original yeast didn't finish the job.
Tom, I'll agree with you that fermentation is always a unique process, but that doesn't obviate common factors being able to yield correspondingly similar results. If I make lemon chicken with three different lemons, sure, each version will be slightly different, but they will all have something in common compared to a version made with red wine vinegar. I know that you've made wine, so I find it hard to believe that you haven't tasted this kind of difference for yourself.
Hiya Joe, be interested to taste the same grapes fermented with different strains – the opportunities I've had to do this so far have demonstrated the radical difference cultured yeast makes to the profile of a wine. I love the idea of wild yeast fermentation – went to a tasting once called Real Men Ferment Wild and I'm inclined to agree ;-) Stir that pot…
Hi Aussie – LOVE the name of that event from a marketing angle :). Of course, I'm not gonna go and agree 100% with that… :-).
I have for sure enjoyed wines of great character fermented with both styles of yeast. The experiment you talk about in your comment probably has been done in a winery, somewhere… and I'm willing to bet it showed huge differences in the final wine… but I'm also willing to bet both are valid and neither superior to the other. :)
"Wild" yeast traditionally meant yeast species that did not evolve for thousands of years along with the wine industry, basically anything other than Saccharomyces cerevisiae. This is the true "wine yeast," that which will produce a clean and dry (consume all the sugar) fermentation. For basically all this time, the goal was to exclude pesky strains of "wild" yeast that could ruin a fermentation. S. cerevisiae was the ONLY standard, not just a gold standard, by which to judge a successful fermentation.
The idea that something other than S. cerevisiae would/could/should enter into the equation was not originally a conscious one. It happened because these species of yeast entered the winery, along with very small populations of S. cerevisiae, and began the fermentation. These species are often more successful at the beginning of the fermentation than S. cerevisae, due mostly to the fact that S. cerevisiae is rarely found in nature. But there was never any doubt that the species of yeast that you WANT to be involved in a fermentation was anything other than S. cerevisiae. There are simply too many species of yeast, other than S. cerevisiae, that are disastrous for fermentation, i.e. they make the wine stink or they cannot live beyond a low concentration of alcohol. The fact that one or two strains of one or two species of yeast don't make the wine stink is an exception to the rule, not a goal to pursue.
Now, what most people (even most winemakers) call "wild" yeast is not "wild" in a true sense. Most people think of "wild" as a species that is found in nature. Like if you take a walk in the forest, swab some leaves and rocks, culture it, and see what species are there. In reality , what people are really referring to is an "uninoculated" fermentation. Meaning the winemaker did not pour in a package of cultured yeast to a fermentation. Here's the take home message: the absence of using cultured yeast has VERY LITTLE to do with whether a fermentation was "wild" or not. In ALL cases of a successful "wild" fermentation, S. cerevisiae was there to finish the fermentation to dryness. A true fermentation in which species of yeast other than S. cerevisiae was used, you'd have a sweet, low-alcohol wine that no one would consider a success. Successful "wild" fermentations are almost entirely IDENTICAL to fermentations in which the winemaker poured in a package of cultured yeast. So, knowing that, what's all the commotion over then?
"Wild" yeast fermentations can be successful only because the workhorse species of the fermentation, S. cerevisiae, was there all along. Because the winemaker used cultured yeast the previous year. S. cerevisiae is an excellent colonizer. It's present in every winery in the world, you can't get rid of it.
Experienced winemakers know this sort of thing happens all the time. Old and established wineries rarely spend as much money on cultured malolactic bacteria as newer wineries because that will often happen spontaneously and successfully after alcoholic fermentation. This happens with yeast as well in older successful wineries. In fact, the "industrial" yeast that comes out of a package was simply isolated and cultured from one of the old wineries in Europe. It was a strain of S. cerevisiae that colonized the winery and vineyard and the winery had success with it.
I can tell you without hesitation (I'm a winemaker) that you cannot tell the difference in a wine that was inoculated vs. uninoculated. Winemakers can tell apparent differences in active fermentations when they were inoculated with different strains of S. cerevisiae, but that really has more to do with the different strains' propensity to produce stinky hydrogen sulfide.
Great info, Trick dog – thanks for that! I had similar info. in front of me when creating the post but felt it was a bit too much detail in the context of the post itself so I’m glad it got some air time here in the comments (with much better explanation and experience behind it than I could have provided, by the way!).
In some respects, it further indicates why heated debates over “right” vs. “wrong” yeast are almost totally irrelevant.
Thanks, Trick Dog: much more informative than the nonsense I've been spewing…
Great comment! Some questions: Where did S.cerevisiae come from? Was it originally 'just another species' that has become dominant/successful because of vineyards/wineries/winemakers favouring it for thousands of years?
Apart form the species that are bad for wine (make it stink), are there any positive ones? ie ones that contribute 'good' flavours or aromas to the wine?
"Inflammatory phases, evoking emotions, elevating tactics over information, etc" – I would love to have a discussion about all that, but I don't think the comment section of this blog-post is the place to do it. (Or maybe it is? Am not up on netiquette!) maybe just to set the ball rolling (either here or somewhere else): I believe that the term 'industrial yeast' which I used earlier is perfectly fine and non-inflammatory. Said yeasts are indeed produced in laboratories or factories and in vast (industrial!) quantities so where's the problem? What's the actual objection to 'industrial'?
In general, special inters groups develop short phrases and talking points like "industrial yeast" to use as short-form scare tactics. The word "industrial" scares the daylights out of the rabid crowd.
At home,. I grow most of my own vegetables–don't like chemistry in farming and don't want GM foods either. But as a gardener as well as an ex-grape grower and winemaker, I also know the extensive work with crossing breeds and hybridizing. If you take the subject to its end point, it isn't yeast to be worried over, it's those nasty crossed and hybridized grape varieties over the centuries that are neither "wild" nor "natural." A good look at grapevine hybridizing in research and grapevine nursery development might also evoke the feeling of industrial development…
I'm no expert on yeast populations, but I was under the impression that hundred or even thousands of different species lived everywhere, including in vineyards. All I can say, from my own experience as a winemaker (only 8 years), is that I've never added a packet of 'cultured' yeast to my wines; and they've all fermented perfectly and turned out just fine.
I'm afraid I can't point you to any scientific evidence of the harm that GM yeast (or any other GM product) may cause to our bodies (or to the ecosystem in general), because the research hasn't been done! That's what worries me. I don't think it's safe or prudent to develop and sell GM products on the open market until proper research has been done – not just profit-driven marketing campaigns.
Fabio – I agree, the GM stuff is a bit distressing in general if only due to the lack of info. about it. I avoid those products where I can, and it's really only because I don't know enough about them.
Sorry, I meant "special interest groups."
Yes, I suppose groups develop their own words and phases, and even co-opt existing words and use them with new meanings. And I must be a 'guilty' as anyone on that score. However, I've never deliberately used words as "scare tactics", simply because I've no desire at all to convert anyone to my way of grape-growing or winemaking! It's hard to be tolerant, and neutral and respectful when you're part of a fringe group, because we have to put up with a lot of mockery, ridicule, silly anecdotes, half-truths, generalizations, etc, so sometimes I just throw caution to the winds and use word like 'adulteration' or 'unnecessary manipulations' of the wine, 'poisonous chemicals' etc, which even if technically correct, have a big emotional impact on the reader, and are not condusive to interesting and sensible debate!
Have never though so much about yeast as I have the last few days! And have never thought about grapevine hybridizing at all!!
Sounds like you and I could have a great conversation exclusive of this particular one on Joe's blog!
The older I get, and boy is that getting old, the more I realize that not only are there no black or white answers, there aren't black or white questions.
I admit to a major flaw in my personality: I hate it when special interest or armchair critics take producers to task without truly understanding the mechanisms behind how these things work. That's why those buzz phrases make me crazy, because they often separate facts from ideology. On another blog, we discussed the word "natural," which makes me as nuts as the word "wild" whenever they are used as ideology and not as information.
Thom – for e, the word “organic” drives me nuts. Similar vein, though different usage since it's a certification and has some parameters. But… what a terrible, terrible moniker. I mean, it has to be organic, we're not growing plastics, right? :)
Yes, it's very difficult to reach concrete answers, because the questions have to be defined and specified so carefully and minutely, that the answers end up being trivial or meaningless!!!
I've also been blogging and commenting on the word "natural" lately! And enjoying it very much too. "Wild" is a new one for me :)
I wouldn't call it a flaw in your personality – a lot of people just don't have the knowledge or information to be able to write or comment sensibly and seem to just type the first banality that comes into their heads (even if all that info is out there on the internet – if they'd only just take the time to inform themselves before hitting the keyboard without engaging the brain first!). 'Patience is a virtue', someone said!!!
Fabio – but with Patience, we really wouldn’t have all the glorious infighting made possible by the Internet! ;-)
Joe, absolutely! there's no doubt that all the posting and commenting is also great fun! and interesting and informative, … and fustrating and dpressing,… in fact whatever you make it, I suppose!
:) All that and more, Fabio!
Fabio – well, I for one am glad you've taken the time to think, and comment. Cheers!
Leave it to the Human Race to base decision on their taste buds alone. FrankenWINE is on the market in the US, Canada,and Moldova. The EU just doesn't buy the benefits of genetically engineered yeast for wine. So that makes the US, Canada, and Moldova the lands of experimental participants. So how is your FrankenWINE, my dear participants? Tastes great, but can you think straight?
HealthGeekAlien – I suppose you're suggesting that most yeasts are genetically engineered/modified, but do you have evidence to cite to back that up?
Comments are closed.